Quick Pickles

Quick-pickled cucumbers, carrots, and beets.Quick-pickling is simply cooking vegetables in vinegar, in contrast to traditional pickling methods that require fermentation or canning.  Quick pickling is generally done to small pieces of vegetable, such as sliced onion or carrot, as opposed to large pieces like whole cucumbers.  The cut vegetables, raw or par-cooked, are exposed to a hot brine of vinegar, sugar, and salt, then left to infuse for a greater or lesser amount of time depending on the vegetable and how it has been cut.  Since the vegetables have not been fermented or extensively heat-treated, the pickles are not shelf-stable and need to be stored in the fridge. The specific process changes from vegetable to vegetable, but I always use the following recipe for the pickling liquid:

Quick Pickle

Ingredients

  • 500 g water
  • 500 g sugar
  • 625 g vinegar
  • 30 g kosher salt

There were four quick pickles on the Eat Alberta tasting board: carrots, beets, and cucumbers, as well as the red onion garnishing the whitefish salad.

Quick Pickled Carrots. For vegetables that are tender and mild enough to eat raw the goal of quick-pickling is to sufficiently acidify the vegetables without cooking out their satisfying crunch.  Examples of such vegetables include carrots, bell peppers, cauliflower, and radish.  The process is simple:

  • Combine the water, sugar, vinegar, and salt in a medium pot.  Heat and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved.
  • Add the sliced vegetables.  Bring the mixture to a simmer, then immediately remove from the heat and let stand at room temperature to infuse.
  • The exact infusion time will depend on how the vegetables were cut.  Very slender strips of vegetable should be sufficiently acidified by the time the pickling liquid reaches a simmer that they can be strained immediately.  Thick-cut vegetables can sit in the hot pickling liquid for several hours, or overnight.

Quick Pickled Beets. Some vegetables, like beets, need to be cooked before being quick-pickled.

  • Cover the beets with foil and roast in a 425°F oven until tender when pierced with a fork.  Peel the beets and discard the skins.
  • Combine the water, sugar, vinegar, and salt in a medium pot.  Heat and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved.
  • Add the beets.  Bring the mixture to a simmer, then remove from the heat and let stand several hours.

Quick Pickled Cucumbers. The pigment in green vegetables is especially volatile, and becomes drab when heated.  For this reason I often “cold pickle” green vegetables like cucumbers, green beans, and asparagus.

  • Combine the water, sugar, vinegar, and salt in a medium pot.  Heat and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved.  Chill the mixture thoroughly.
  • Pour the chilled pickling liquid over the sliced cucumbers and refrigerate for 48 hours.

Pickled Red Onion. Pickled onion is a great garnish for canapés and charcuterie boards.  Pickled red onions are often made with red wine or red wine vinegar to reinforce the natural purple of the vegetable.  I only use cider vinegar in my kitchen, so for vibrant pickled red onions I re-use the pickling liquid leftover from beets.  This is what makes my pickled red onions a deep, electric fuchsia.

  • Reserve the pickling liquid from the quick-pickled beets.
  • Add sliced red onion to the pickling liquid.  Heat in a medium pot.  Once the mixture reaches a simmer, kill the heat and strain off the onions.

Sprouts for the Spring Gap

clover_sprouts.JPGMaking your own sprouts is simple business.

Frankly most sprouts aren’t too flavourful, but I think they’re good for the spring shoulder season, when we’re starting to crave fresh vegetables, but nothing has popped up in the garden yet.  When we pull out the seed box to sow the veggies that will be transplanted, we also make some clover or alfalfa sprouts.  Clover seems especially appropriate around St. Patrick’s Day.  Both are great accompaniments to the Easter ham.

How to Make Sprouts at Home, from Seeds.  You can buy or make proper “sprouting bags”.  We use one quart mason jars and cheesecloth.

  • Soak the seeds at room temperature overnight. Two tablespoons of small seeds like clover or alfalfa will be plenty for a one quart jar.
  • Transfer the seeds to a mason jar.  Cover the mouth of the jar with cheesecloth, pantyhose, or a similarly porous material, held tightly by a rubber band, or the metal ring from the lid of the jar.
  • Rinse the seeds twice daily by pouring cool water through the pantyhose, then drain by turning the jar upside down.  Store the jar upside down and tilted to ensure the seeds are not sitting in water.
  • Small white sprouts will show up in a day or two.  After a week or so you should have nice long green sprouts.

Sprouts stand up surprisingly well in the fridge.  Store them as you would greens, and they last up to two weeks.

These little spindles are good on sandwiches (again, not too flavourful, so mostly for texture and I guess also nutrients).  Last Easter we made a salad with them using pickled carrot, raw onion, and a light honey mustard dressing.

Easter ham, scallop potatoes, and a clover sprout salad

 

Sour Cabbage Heads

A homemade sour cabbage headThis happy fellow at left is a sour cabbage head, sauerkraut in whole-cabbage form.

You can make sour cabbage heads simply by burying little cabbages throughout your sauerkraut crock after you have liberally salted and mixed your shredded cabbage.  The mass ferments together, and at the appointed time you can prod through the conventional sauerkraut til you find the whole heads of cured cabbage.  It’s rather like an Easter egg hunt only with more lactobacillus.

It didn’t cross my mind to make sour cabbage heads this season until about a month after I had started my large crock of kraut.  Lisa had bought some pretty little savoy cabbages.  I stole one.  Then I dug a deep well into the centre of the dense, wet, tangled mass of kraut.  I planted my cabbage head in the bottom, then back-filled the hole.

Today, a month or two later, I fished the cabbage from the crock.

The most common use of cabbages cured in this manner is to snap off the whole leaves and make them into sour cabbage rolls.

When making cabbage rolls with sour cabbage leaves I forgo the tomato sauce and instead use mushroom cream sauce.  Not sure what the traditions are, but the sour cabbage leaves don’t need any supporting acidity.

Braised Cabbage

Rendering lardonsBraised cabbage is wholly satisfying: warm and hearty and comforting in a way that vegetables usually only achieve in soup form.  I guess it doesn’t hurt that there’s lots of pork fat in it, but the flavour of the cabbage is the star.

With slaw and sauerkraut, braised cabbage forms what I call the trinity of cabbage preparations.  It is a cherished dish at Thanksgiving, and any wintry night.

Cook some type of fatty pork – bacon, loose sausage, and jowl all fit the bill – until it is golden brown and has rendered some golden fat into the pot.

Cook sliced onions and garlic in the pork fat until starting to turn translucent.  Add the cabbage and cook briefly, until it is just starting to wilt.  Add apple cider and vinegar.  Or wine.  The acidity is important for the flavour of the finished dish, and if you are using red cabbage, it is essential to preserve the vibrant purple of the dish.

Bring the liquid to a boil, lower to a simmer, then cover the pot.  Traditionally this dish is cooked until the cabbage is very soft.  I prefer braised cabbage with some bite.  Ten or fifteen minutes should do the trick.

Once the cabbage is approaching its desired tenderness, remove the lid from the pot and crank the heat to reduce the cooking liquid.  This will concentrate the flavours and make the dish less soupy and easier to serve and eat.

A pot of braising cabbage

 

Braised Cabbage

The last time I made braised cabbage I weighed out my ingredients to give you an idea of the proportions.

  • 500 g bacon cut into thick lardons, or an equal measure of some manner of fatty pork
  • 400 g white onion, sliced
  • 30 g garlic, minced
  • 1100 g cabbage, cored and sliced into thin strips 2-3″ long
  • 440 g dry cider
  • 60 g cider vinegar
  • salt

Radish Pods

I have to admit that this summer came with many, many gardening disasters.  “Gardening lessons” maybe is a better way to think of it.  There were, for instance, some hard lessons in soil fertility.

Last summer we got some trees cut down and we were left with a staggering amount of mulch, mulch that I slowly and laboriously transferred to our many garden beds.  At the time I thought that since I was adding organic matter to the beds I was improving the soil.  I planted chard, onion, kale, spinach, and potatoes in those beds, but only the potatoes became proper plants, and even then they produced small, scant tubers.

It turns out by adding all that mulch I built unhealthy beds that are too rich in carbon.  I now understand that that huge dose of carbon needs to be balanced by nitrogen, and I am currently adding as much nitrogen-rich compost as I can to amend the beds and get them ready for next year.

That was the biggest lesson of this summer, for sure.

Some other odd things happened in the yard, though.  We seeded radishes in a planter by the house, and in a few weeks they had shot up almost two feet and formed beautiful, four-petaled flowers blushing pink and violet.  I was familiar with the short, friendly bunches of leaves that radishes usually form, so I knew something was amiss.  I started wondering if the seeds we had planted were even truly radish seeds.  I tasted the flowers and found that they did have a mild radish flavour.  Still not convinced I periodically pulled up one of the plants to find a stunted radish the size of a dime beneath the soil.  Once the delicate flowers withered things got really crazy.  Pods shaped like rifle shells appeared up and down the length of the shoots.  They stood upright, which made them look particularly menacing.

Anyone who has gardened before knows that I am describing a “bolting” radish. We planted the radishes too late in the season, and the long, hot days made the plant go to seed instead of developing a root.  Live and learn.

The fortunate part of this mistake is that the pods formed by a bolting radish are actually delicious.  They taste just like radish root – possibly even hotter on the tongue than the roots would have been – but have the texture of a snap pea.  Most welcome in salads and pickle jars.

A fistful of delicious radish pods.

Slaw

Coleslaw with honey mustard dressing and caraway.Recently I was shocked to discover that many people have bad childhood memories of “creamy” coleslaw.  I was raised on chopped cabbage in mayonnaise, a creamy slaw that we called cabbage salad.  Many detest this side dish so much that they have given up slaw all together.

I’d like to vouch for a different style of coleslaw, one that has more in common with the German Krautsalat than the classic mayo-bound North American slaw.

The main difference is that it’s dressed in a vinaigrette, instead of mayonnaise or buttermilk.  But before we discuss dressing, there’s a very important technique to consider.

Lightly Curing Cabbage for Slaw

There are very few vegetables that I truly enjoy raw.  Good carrots, radishes, and snap peas are the only ones that come to mind right now.  I think every other vegetable is better once it has been roasted or blanched or pickled or at the very least lightly cured, as described here.

Once I have sliced my cabbage into thin strips 2 to 3″ long, I toss those strips with 1% of their weight in salt, and 1% of their weight in sugar.  In other words, for each kilo of sliced cabbage, add 10 g each of salt and sugar.  Mix thoroughly and let the cabbage stand at room temperature for about an hour.  The transformation that takes place is subtle, but important.

Raw sliced cabbage is a bit stiff: it tends to stand up, and sometimes it reminds me of straw in my mouth.

During this light curing process, the cabbage starts to leach a bit of liquid.  Not so much that it becomes desiccated; just enough to get the juices flowing.  It takes on a faint luster, a brighter green hue, and the ribbons of cabbage become ever-so-slightly limp.  And of course the cabbage takes on salt and sugar, enhancing the natural flavour of the vegetable.  The strips still have the crunch and mustardy bite of raw cabbage, but they are far more appetizing.

For Krautsalat the Germans and Austrians take this process a bit further, letting the cabbage sit for several hours, then aggressively pressing it to remove excess moisture.

The Dressing

Mustard and cabbage are friends.  They’re both brassicas, and they share a lot of the same flavour characteristics.  Apples and cabbage are also friends, though the reasons for this are much more mysterious to me.  The two main flavours of my slaw dressing are therefore mustard and apple cider vinegar.  I sweeten it with honey, and whisk it with canola oil.  If you want to add another level of flavour, try adding caraway, celery seed, and mustard seed.  My preferred slaw dressing is detailed in this post on vinaigrettes.

Uses

Slaw is an essential component of any barbecue, especially true barbecue like pulled pork.  It’s also a good accompaniment to ham, or fried meat, like schnitzel.  And it’s useful as a dish for picnics.

Allan’s Default Slaw

Ingredients

  • 1 kg raw cabbage, cored and sliced into thin strips about 2″ long
  • 10 g kosher salt
  • 10 g granulated sugar
  • 1 cup of the honey mustard dressing described in this post

Procedure

  1. Toss the cabbage, salt, and sugar in a large bowl and let stand until the cabbage has released some moisture and become slightly limp, 1 to 2 hours.
  2. Lightly press the cabbage and strain out the liquid that has settled at the bottom of the bowl.
  3. Toss the lightly cured cabbage with the dressing.

 

General Slaw Method

The procedure above can be used to make a number of different slaws and salads.  Carrot, for instance, or cucumber.  Lightly cure carrots in the manner described above, then dress them in tangy yogurt and mint leaves.

 

Salad Days

…I was gladdened to find, at last, hard scientific evidence that lettuce is an unsuitable food and that a craving for lettuce is evidence of a diseased brain.

-from Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay Brain Storm

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

-Ecclesiastes 3:1

 

Blushed butter oak lettuceFor many chefs there is a discrepancy between what they want to serve and what will please their customers.  As a chef I want to take seasonality seriously, but in most restaurants the owners and clientele find it unacceptable to not offer a green salad, even in the dead of winter.  I deeply resent this.

Don’t misunderstand me: I like green salads.  They’re refreshing. Personally, I like eating them after a rich meal like grilled steak.[1]  They’re a delicate, ephemeral expression of summer.  While they can’t truly satisfy without some bolstering by bacon or egg or bread, they are the very image and flavour of the season, the verdant, curling growth and pungent flavours of the plant kingdom.

That being said, our love of greens can only be described as mania, and folly.  There’s a detailed description of the green-growing operation at Earthbound Farms in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that puts the industry in prospective.  For an Edmontonian to stomp over frozen pavement and sit in a restaurant with foggy windows and order a green salad is nuts.  Especially considering how uninspired the standard offerings are: “spring mix” dumped from a plastic clamshell, tossed with some kind of seed or nut and some kind of dried fruit, then muddled with some kind of vinaigrette.

Let’s enjoy green salads now, then gracefully surrender them to the first frost.

 

Three Green Salads that I Enjoy Eating

Dandelion.  I’ve written about this before.  Possibly my favourite salad of all time: bitter dandelion greens from the yard with some combination of egg (hard-boiled or poached), bacon, garlic, bread (crouton or simply toasted), and mustard.

Styrian.  This is a salad that Lisa and I developed from our Tipi Creek vegetable shipments.  It’s comprised of arrowleaf lettuce, shaved kohlrabi, diced onion, and pumpkinseed dressing.  The sulphurous bite of the raw onion and the mustard-fart flavour of the kohlrabi make this salad profoundly Teutonic.  Radishes and horseradish are welcome substitutes/additions.  Styria is a region in Austria that produces pumpkinseed oil.

Radish Greens.  No garnishes, just radish greens in honey mustard dressing, eaten alongside radishes and buttery biscuits.

Sliced radish, radish greens, and butter biscuits

 

1.  One of Brillat-Savarin’s famous aphorisms is translated thusly: “The proper progression of courses in a dinner is from the most substantial to the lightest.”

2.  Edmonton is starting to take the flavour of its greens seriously, thanks in large part to the Lactuca growing operation.  I think those guys are personally responsible for increasing the number of flowers consumed by Edmontonians by at least 1000%.

How to Eat a Triffid

I love creating plates that feature different components of the same ingredient: roasted beets with wilted beet greens, for instance, or pork loin and pork belly side by side.  The truth is that no creature is capable of offering more variety at the dinner table than the triffid.

About Triffids

A group of triffids

Some of the few remaining wild triffids. Photo courtesy of myexplosivetravels.info.

Triffids are interesting creatures.  They are genetic hybrids, part animal, part plant.  The precise intentions behind their development is uncertain, but researchers soon discovered that their oil is extremely useful and relatively cheap.  Triffid oil has many industrial applications.  It is also edible, and delicious.

As they are part animal and part plant, we can harvest a shockingly diverse set of food from triffids.  Let’s talk anatomy.

The “Animal” Bits.  Triffids perform three animalistic functions that require muscle tissue.  First, they are capable of locomotion by way of three short legs.  Just above the legs are a set of muscles called “clickers” that rap against the woody stalk of the plant to create sounds.  The exact purpose of the sounds is still a mystery: most botanists agree it is a form of communication, though how exactly outside signals are received without ears remains to be understood.  The third muscle group allows triffids to hunt, kill, and consume prey.  At the very top of the triffid, on the “head,” there is a long, whip-like muscle called a lasher.  At the end of the lasher is a venomous stinger.  Triffids hunt by waiting for prey to come near enough that they can lash out and sting them.  Small animals are killed almost instantly by a triffid sting.  The triffid then hobbles towards the prey and waits for the flesh to decompose so that it can be digested (described below).

The “Plant” Bits.  In addition to the three animalistic muscle groups described above, triffids also have all of the anatomy of a normal plant.  When sedentary, triffids put down roots.  They have a tall central stalk, called the trunk, which is usually about seven feet high.  Near the head are more tender stalks that produce foliage.  The head also contains a large cup filled with a sticky fluid, similar to that of a pitcher plant.  Once a triffid’s prey’s flesh has rotted sufficiently, the triffid will use its lasher to lift the meat into this cup, where it is digested.

RaisingTriffids

The duplicitous nature of the triffid can make farming difficult: some practices promote the growth of the animalistic parts, while others encourage vegetative growth.

If prey is very scarce the triffid enters a vegetative state: it puts down roots, and gets all its energy from the sun.  During periods of prolonged vegetation the meaty portions of the triffid are severely compromised.  However, if the triffid is simply “fed” meat, it will not move about or hunt, and the muscles will similarly deteriorate.

While some producers seek to maximize the growth of either the animal or vegetable organs of the triffid, there are many artisinal producers that are striving to find a more sustainable compromise.  This style of farming is very much a balancing act: to properly develop the muscles the triffids must not only be free-range, but also must be allowed to hunt for themselves; however, there has to be sufficient scarcity of prey that the triffids will take time to develop stalks, leaves, and other vegetable organs.

There are a handful of such triffid producers in Alberta, most of them in the Calmar-Thorsby area.  They currently export most of their produce to the Asian markets, were it fetches a much higher price than at home.  Right now you essentially have to know the producers personally to get their product.  Hopefully their fantastic triffid meat, stalks, leaves, and oil will be available at farmers’ markets in Edmonton soon.

Cooking Triffids

As the legs are used for the protracted labour of standing and hobbling, the meat is relatively dark, similar to turkey legs.  On farms, triffid stingers are pruned back (“cropped”) every year, usually in the spring.  They are therefore extremely tender, a very seasonal delicacy.  The small clickers are an intermediate texture and colour, similar to chicken wings.  (These are very broad generalizations: the exact nature of triffid meat, as with any animal, depends largely on how it was raised, as discussed above.)

The trunk tends to be extremely fibrous, even in young triffids.  In some parts of the world it is stewed, but even after extensive cooking most North Americans find it too woody.  I like adding a bit of triffid trunk to piccalilli for texture.  The trunk also makes a fantastic broth.  I am convinced that the genetic make-up of the triffid includes some type of brassica, because the trunk and stalks have a distinct, slightly astringent mustard flavour.  (It would make sense that these prodigious oil-producing creatures would be part brassica, like canola…)

The best vegetative parts of the triffid are the tender stalks that support the leaves, and the leaves themselves, which are similar in texture to kale.

One great way to showcase the many edible portions of a triffid is to make stir-fry.  Triffid oil has a very high smoke-point.  I heat the oil in a heavy pan until shimmering, then add cubes of leg and clicker meat.  The pan will need to be very hot for the meat to brown.  Then I add onion, garlic, ginger, and thinly-sliced triffid stalk.  For the last couple minutes of cooking I throw in some slender pieces of lasher and triffid leaves, which wilt readily.

This week I was able to secure some triffid lashers from a producer near Thorsby.  They were removed from the triffids just last week.  I poached the lashers in a court-bouillon, then served them with bitter greens and balsamic vinegar.  (Photo below.)

More than the pig, triffids truly should be the poster-child for the “nose-to-tail” movement.  I hope the gastronomic importance of this creature is soon recognized by Edmonton’s restaurants and home-cooks.

Triffid stinger with bitter greens and vinegar

 

So… even if you’re unfamiliar with John Wyndham’s science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, it should be pretty obvious that this post is a joke for April Fool’s Day.  Triffids don’t exist.  All the anatomical details are from the book.  The first picture is a photo of a plant in Australia from the travel blog mentioned in the caption.  The second picture is actually a sliced lamb tongue, not a triffid lasher stump.  Happy April 1st.

Relish – The Post-Pickle Blitz

Chopped vegetables, for piccalilliThe following post is either going to blow your mind or convince you that I’m stupid.

I don’t eat a lot of relish, but every now and then it goes well with charcuterie, or maybe a steamed wiener on a sweet white bun.  For the past few years I’ve been trying to make relish and other condiments like piccalilli by chopping up a bunch of vegetables and canning them with a sweet and sour pickling liquid.  I haven’t been entirely happy with the results.  Maybe I chopped the cucumbers too coarsely, and the condiment didn’t have the semi-fluid, spreadable consistency I was looking for.  Or perhaps, since the chopped vegetables have to be completely submerged in the pickling liquid for safe canning, the relish was too soupy and had to be pressed before eating.

I’ve always thought of relish as chopped cucumbers that are pickled.  Then I realized – and this is the potentially “stupid” part – that it could just as easily be pickled cucumbers that are then chopped.  I love the idea of only pickling whole or mostly whole vegetables, then blitzing them in a food processor to make a spread.  Here are some of the benefits I see to this method:

  1. Whole or mostly whole vegetables retain better crunch through the canning process, so they make for a spread with more structure and texture.
  2. It’s much, much faster to can large pieces of veg.
  3. By blitzing the pickles at the last minute, condiments can be tailored to fit the dish.  If you put up some dill pickles, a few jars of pickled zucchini, some pickled peppers, onions, and garlic, then you can combine them into any number of piccalilli-masterpieces throughout the winter.

Maybe this is how everyone makes relish and I only just clued in.  At any rate, next year’s pickle pantry is going to look a lot different than this year’s.

Onion Jam

"Cheese and Crackers": Sylvan Star gouda, dried fruit and nut cracker, and onion jamThis is one of my favourite condiments of all time.

I make two different versions of this jam, one for red onions and one for white onions, the only difference being the colour of the final product.  The recipe below is for the red variety.  To make the brown marmalade, at left, use white onions, dark brown sugar, and cider vinegar instead of red onions, white sugar, and red wine vinegar.

 

Red Onion Jam
adapted from River Cottage Preserves Handbook

Ingredients

  • 120 g canola oil
  • 1300 g red onion (about 4 large onions)
  • 100 g granulated sugar
  • 120 g crabapple jelly, or some other red fruit jelly, such as currant
  • 200 mL red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper

Procedure

  1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat and add the onions.  Reduce heat to low, cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are wilted and beginning to colour, about 40 minutes.
  2. Add the sugar and jelly.  Increase the heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring more frequently, until the mixture turns dark brown and most of the moisture has been driven off, about 30 minutes.
  3. Add the vinegar.  Increase the heat to high and cook rapidly until the mixture becomes gooey and a spoon drawn across the bottom of the pan leaves a clear track across the base, about 10 minutes.
  4. Remove from heat and season with the salt and pepper.  Spoon into warm, sterilized jars and seal.  Use within a year.

 

Below is the red version of this jam, which I served as a condiment for puffball mushroom fritters at last year’s Ukrainian Christmas dinner.  Photo courtesy of Valerie Lugonja.
Puffball mushroom fritters with red onion jam